The (Delicate) Art of Writing a Conflict Disclosure
The Internet brought a new expectation of transparency for information. And in this new world, a failure to disclose conflicts of interest can often seem like an intent to disguise.
Most journalists know that when they have a personal conflict, be it financial or social, with a source in a story they are covering, they are obligated to reveal it to the reader.
In the emerging field of content marketing, where the line between journalism and content for marketing purposes can be murky and a writer’s relationship to sources are often complicated, what are the rules for disclosure? Are there any?
Last week, a disclosure by Henry Blodget of Business Insider took the genre to the extreme.
In an article about Facebook’s road to its IPO offering, he writes of a Goldman banker in his end of article disclosure:
“If I did know him I might like him. … I don’t like to write things that make people I like not like me … doing this will make them less likely to tell me cool things.”
When does ground-breaking honesty cross over to insignificant navel-gazing? Every writer wrestles with the need to keep avenues of information open to them with the imperative to report accurate and important information. Should writers really be expected to indicate each source they feel an affinity for?
It’s fair to say that every journalist-source relationship spans beyond transactional. Heck, keeping that line of communication open can even mean faux-friendship, which, at best, might result in real friendship. But do these non-financial ties influence a writer like Blodget as much as owning stock or being a member of a board?
Before we start disclosing things like, “I once walked by Mark Zuckerberg’s dog walker on the street and liked his shoes,” let’s look for a sense of reason, perhaps somewhere between Mike Arrington, controversial VC-turned-reporter-turned-VC, and Kara Swisher of AllThingsD.
Swisher points out that VCs will always be motivated by money and a blanket disclosure doesn’t change that. But since the lines are blurred between blogging on behalf of a brand, where there are clear incentives beyond objective truth, and writing as an independent news source, often disclosure is the best one can do.
The first piece to include is anything involving money. If you write about finance for a business audience, you’ve likely been told to not buy stock in the companies you cover. But, if you’re writing about French wine, the best way to gain the necessary knowledge to write an informative piece might be to visit France with all expenses paid by a winery. Disclose this.
When it comes to relationships, the romantic ones are tricky. If a reporter begins dating a staff member at the police department, he or she will need to drop the police beat. If a writer’s significant other works in the industry they cover, it is best to write a succinct but transparent disclosure. Sometimes conflicts of interest are unavoidable, and that’s where a well-worded disclosure comes in.
Readers are not limited in terms of finding information — they can read five blogs as easily as just one, and any biases will become clear. Experts on a topic are often the people who have the strongest financial or relational interests.
And maybe, if there is any doubt about how much to reveal, it might be best to just pull a Blodget and disclose everything.
Here is Blodget’s full disclosure:
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